Mark Ritson: The Leave campaign is winning the all-important emotional argument on Brexit

The polls are still within the margin for error, but marketing theory suggests we are heading for Brexit.

Ritson head scratch small

By now you almost certainly know what is at stake. If British voters opt to stay in the European Union next Thursday we lose the last vestiges of sovereignty, immigration will run amok and rule of law will permanently cease to be a matter for British courts. If we vote for Brexit our economy will most certainly crash, we will become a political and economic pariah state and, if European Council President Donald Tusk is to be believed, we will usher in the end of Western political civilisation as we know it.

Clearly, it’s rhetorical nonsense on both sides. The debates have become childish slanging matches in which both sides throw bullshit in ever increasing volumes at the other. I have no idea which way I will vote and even if I did, I certainly would not be advising you what to do. This is Marketing Week after all, not The Spectator.

But I can use my marketing skills to tell you who is more likely to win the vote next week. The current poll of polls has the difference between the leave and stay votes within the margin of error. But if you look more closely at the central arguments of both sides, it’s clear which one will gain the greater popular support and win the day.

To work it out you have to remember your basic marketing training, and specifically the concept of positioning and the benefit ladder. The idea of the benefit ladder is deceptively simple. You start with whatever product feature you believe your product offers that is superior or different from the competition – a micro-camera fitted to a toaster that can identify colours, for example. You then look for the benefit to the target segment that this feature will deliver – perfectly toasted bread every time. Finally, if possible, you push towards the heavens and look for the emotional benefit that this this product benefit will confer – you are the perfect parent because you make perfect toast every time. The higher up the benefit ladder you can authentically base your positioning claim the more powerful and successful it is likely to be.

If we look at the Remain camp it’s obvious what the product feature is – the continuation of the UK’s membership in the European Union. The benefit of staying in Europe is to avoid the fiscal penalties that Brexit would incur. Specifically, the pound will weaken and our economy will worsen. Emotionally that translates into tougher times ahead for families who will face more expensive holidays, less job security and, if George Osborne is to be believed, “£4,300 less money per household by 2030”.

The Remain Argument:

Contrast that with the Brexit argument. Their product feature is to exit the European Union. The benefit of such a move is to return to British sovereignty and the ability to properly control immigration. The emotional benefit of Brexit is to prevent the UK being over-run by a growing tide of foreigners who will weaken the national spirit and use up its precious resources to our detriment.

The Leave Argument:

So which of these two arguments is most important to the British public? Last week’s poll from YouGov has the economy three points above that of immigration. But, there is a big difference between rational box ticking and the emotional implications of these issues when they come close to home. While no one wants to be worse off, the dreaded spectre of continued immigration and all the manifest threats to both economic and cultural life that it portends makes it a far more emotive and therefore persuasive argument. That’s why the most recent polls show that only 66% of Remain believers are definite that they will actually vote next week in contrast with 78% of Leave supporters. That’s a crucial gap when the polls are so tight.

With still so many voters undecided, clearly the vote could go either way. And much depends on how both sides handle the final week of campaigning. But the more the Leave campaign openly and repeatedly pushes a reduction in immigration while the Remain side continues to promote the economic advantages of staying inside the European Union, the more sentiment will swing towards Brexit.

It’s a fascinating case study because the product features of both sides are equally attractive. Half the British population want to remain in the EU and half wish to leave. The population are equally split on whether the economy or immigration is the bigger issue. But this whole decision, arguably the most important one in recent British history, will come down to the benefit ladder and who can play the emotional advantages better than the other. My money, if not my heart, sides with Brexit.

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Mark Ritson presentation

Mark Ritson: Eight marketing concepts – some heavenly, some hellish

Mark Ritson

Mark Ritson, our award-winning columnist, consultant and marketing professor, is never one to shy away from an opinion and he had plenty of those in his talk at Marketing Week Live. Ritson gave his view on the importance (or lack thereof) of eight marketing concepts: millennials, CSR, brand purpose, brand valuation, digital marketing, zero based budgets, targeting and TV advertising.


There are 9 comments at the moment, we would love to hear your opinion too.

  1. Michael 15 Jun 2016

    Interesting analysis. If you were using Maslow’s hierarchy you could equally argue neither side has elevated itself past the level of ‘safety’, each citing the threats to our employment, security and prosperity. Either side could have painted a better picture of the future, the Remain side could have painted a better picture of the present. Both have failed to do this. Like most people in our industry I will vote to Remain but I fear the worst.

  2. The alternative approach to predicting the outcome – avoid the opinion polls and look at what the bookies say…far more reliable!

  3. Jonathan Cahill 15 Jun 2016

    As Ritson mentions, the benefit ladder is basic – too basic. It is based on a ‘basic’ rational approach which the work of Kahneman and others has transcended.

    The approach is product-based and allows little room for the key role of perceptions. To say that “finally, if possible, you push towards the heavens and look for the emotional benefit that this this (sic) product benefit will confer” ignores the fact that emotions appear to be the basis of choice, as demonstrated by Damasio and others. The amazing success of Stella Artois was based purely on perceptions, in blind taste tests the product fell flat.

    l appreciate that it is easier to deal in rational constructs as reason is the currency of debate. But, inconveniently, there appears to be little solid evidence that behaviour and cognition conform to this approach. Reason operates in the conscious mind, but it is calculated that 99% of the mind’s activity is unconscious. As most cognitive work (unsurprisingly) appears to work at this level then, rationally, reason would appear to have little significance.

    It would be more constructive if people in marketing could avoid the lazy approach of defaulting to models that have rational plausibility but little relation to people as they are. It is a bit like economists and their ‘econ’ man. He’s great for their theories but, alas, lives in La La land.

  4. Madge Bright 15 Jun 2016

    We’ve only had snippets of the Brexit debate in NZ, but it seems to come down to this: people with no money, no voice and little prospects who want foreign labour to go away = Brexit and people with money want a known, stable future = no Brexit. So in marketing terms, the aspirational sell for Brexit appeals to more people and will therefore be the winner on the day… if they can bother to vote.

  5. we're all in it together 19 Jun 2016

    I think the death of Jo Cox may well have gone some way to neutralising immigration as an issue for those still on the fence. Given this was published before that incident I’d love to hear Mark’s thoughts on this.

  6. Marc Cave 19 Jun 2016

    What Mark Ritson calls ’emotional benefits’ are merely avoidance strategies. Negative campaigning playing on our fears.

    The EU Referendum was the first opportunity within living memory for a positive political campaign. To highlight the opportunity for Britain – not the problem to be avoided. The opportunity to inspire hope not fear. The chance to unite the British people with a vision of how life could be better, not ‘not as bad’. Because actually, that’s been the wish uniting all real people out there from all walks of life in this debate. Where is the positive virtue of either the In or the Out argument? Let’s use our so called ‘marketing skills’ to highlight this obvious and glaring failure.

  7. Claire 20 Jun 2016

    What’s interesting is the reduction on both sides of the issue to an immigration vs economy debate. There’s so much more at stake and the issues far more complex than that. But hey, it’s only the future of our country at stake, who wants to look at detail? Us peasants wouldn’t understand all the ins and outs anyway…

  8. Al King 27 Jun 2016

    Well you certainly called it Mark. I found the splits by age, paper read and education level interesting. Oldies, Tories and Thickies caused a perfect storm of idiot segments to get us out.

  9. Dodgy Geezer 27 Jul 2016

    How well does this sit with the Ashcroft polls saying that sovereignty, not immigration, was the critical deciding factor?

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